Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the running back position was held at a premium. If you were a team that was drafting in the top ten and needed a back, teams wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on a top guy in the draft. It seemed as if backs from some of the top universities in the nation always landed in the first round.
Aside from that, backs were a coveted commodity in the free agent market. Productive guys who saw their rookie contracts expire landed some big contracts around the league--be it by remaining with their own club, or taking a big deal with another. It's these circumstances that allowed a player like Duce Staley to land a solid free agent contract.
It has just been in the past few years that this trend has done a complete one-eighty. Part of the reason for this is that the shelf-life of an NFL running back is short because of the wear and tear that they endure. Another part of the equation is the emergence of more two-back systems around the NFL. Lastly, the ability of a team to grab a productive back anywhere in the draft makes the need to use a high pick on a back a non-necessity.
An interesting example of the devaluation of running backs in the past few years can be traced back to Willis McGahee in 2002 and Marcus Lattimore eleven years later. Both backs had similar injuries to their knees and both had question marks on their ability to play as a rookie, yet McGahee was a late-first round pick to the Bills and Lattimore went at the end of the third to the 49ers.
Over the past five-plus years, the Bengals chose to buck the running back free agency trend and invest somewhat heavily in the position with contracts to both Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. However, on the draft front, the Bengals were part of the trend by not grabbing a running back high in the draft, to the frustration of fans.
A breakdown of the position by CBS Sports' Pat Kirwan dissects the current free agents and other high-profile backs that could become unemployed in the very near future shows that this trend is alive and well. The overall theme of the article is that teams' rosters as they are currently set at running back, will likely change because of backs who are and will be available.
The unfortunate reality is that injuries will occur. Because of the aforementioned wear and tear on backs some of the street free agents will find jobs with clubs and others will be bounced because of the emergence of some of the other aforementioned low draft picks that impress their team through camp. In short, the position has become one of the most expendable in the league.
The Bengals re-stocked their corps with second round pick Giovani Bernard and sixth-rounder Rex Burkhead. They also brought back Cedric Peerman as well as Bernard Scott on a prove-it deal as an insurance policy. Throw in last year's sixth-rounder Daniel Herron and there is going to be quite the scrum.
We don't expect the Bengals to dive into some of the names that Kriwan references in his piece, but we will have to see how things play out in Training Camp. The good news is that we will all get an up-close look at this situation with "Hard Knocks".